The Nature of Evidence
This is really a foundational point. Steven keeps repeating that I have not produced any 'evidence'. What remains unclear to me is what kind of 'evidence' anyone could conceivably produce which would fit within his definition. He continually reiterates that all ancient writers and historians were gullible and naïve, so even supposing that some archaeologist could come up with (say) a new 1stC Jewish account of Jesus' life unearthed in Jerusalem (a feat which it seems unreasonable to expect of me as an academic living in Preston) this would not be 'evidence' according to him. He demands 'objective eyewitnesses' and 'unbiased' sources. This is a nonsense. One might just possibly speak of an 'objective eyewitness and unbiased source' if someone had absolutely no interest in the issue observed. But anyone who 'objectively' observes a miracle, or a resurrected Messiah who makes claims on all our lives, has perforce to make a decision. In this case (whatever they decide) they are no longer 'unbiased'. Josephus was no less biased than Paul. Steven denounces my failure to produce 'evidence that Luke met Mary'. Well some passages in Acts use the first person 'we', and most commentators take this to mean that the author accompanied Paul at these points. If the author was indeed Luke, then in Acts 21 Luke arrived with Paul in Jerusalem. Mary could then well have still been alive (though in her 70's) or certainly Luke could have met friends of hers. I see nothing at all improbable, then, in Luke obtaining good information on the birth events. If, however, by 'evidence' Steven means a signed photograph of them posing together outside the Temple, then I admit I cannot produce any.
Steven suggests that the recent London train crash has 'contemporary, independent, corroborated evidence that (the) Gospels lack'. Well of course we live today in an age of printed records, photographs and official enquiries. Even then, results of enquiries (eg into the death of Kennedy, the death of Diana, or the Waco massacre) are often hotly disputed. What is 'independent' evidence and who is to corroborate it? What does he really expect from me? Perhaps a video of Jesus emerging from the tomb waving a copy of the Jerusalem Echo with a headline about his own death, certificated fingerprints or DNA, corroboration from the first century Jerusalem Rationalist Association, the results of an official enquiry by the Roman Senate, and a live interview of Jesus and Caiaphas by John Snow. Well then I fear that my next email is unlikely to produce any 'evidence' either, and, even if I had all these, most of them could have been faked.
Our subject is supposed to be whether few stories in the Gospels have much historical worth. Let me first comment on his assertion that my last email implied only militant atheists could doubt the historical worth of the Gospel stories'. Now if by 'historical worth' he means complete historical accuracy, such a view would be absurd and is not implied in anything I have ever written. Numerous theologians (from Strauss through to Jenkins, Peacocke and the present Bishop of Oxford) deny it in any normal sense, as do all Muslims. Were I debating with Arthur Peacocke (and I am ready any time he is), or with Ahmed Deedat (likewise), I would look at their alternative hypothesis about the gospels. But I am debating with someone who advances his site as the premier atheist website so it seems reasonable to slant my comments towards his atheistic form of scepticism.
But what exactly is it? The Christian view is that Christian beliefs started with a man called Jesus who was crucified around AD29 under Pilate, and were spread and interpreted by followers including Paul of Tarsus who established churches and wrote some letters. Serious scholars accept that Paul's letters were written in the 50-60s and the gospels around 60-80sAD. I have seen the Rylands early second century actual fragment of John, and we have sizeable papyri chunks of the gospels from the late second century. So. what is Steven's hypotheses? Is it that both the gospels and Acts are nothing but cleverly revamped stories from the Old Testament and Euripides, concocted by someone too stupid to realise that disciples would be unable to hear Jesus praying when they were sound asleep? Is he suggesting that neither Jesus nor Paul ever existed and there was no early church and that this was why eg Josephus never mentions them? Perhaps he can spell out for us his overview, rather than leave us to try to gather it from his various 'but what about' attacks on the gospels.
As I have already written, whether or not we finally accept the truth of the Gospels is related to our whole world-view, whether Theism makes most sense of the human experience, whether Jesus of Nazareth holds a special place in the communication of a personal God, and whether a supranaturalist framework is believed credible. Thus eg to begin with the assumption (as Hume, Strauss, Jenkins or Peacocke) that miracles are impossible or unlikely beyond belief, is to ensure that one will conclude the Gospels are to a large degree unreliable accounts. There is, however, a very great difference between assessing 'evidence' for a particular theory within a given paradigm, and assessing evidence for one basic world view as against another. 'Evidence', for example, that protracted mobile phone use breaks down the brain's natural defences against toxins, can be examined within a generally accepted view of what a mobile phone is and what would constitute such 'evidence'. 'Evidence' for theism, mainstream Christianity, Islam or Mormonism as the best 'worldview' is on a quite different level and 'evidence' for particular events. eg a resurrection. will be viewed according to that worldview. This does not mean that historical issues are unimportant, but that overall coherence is a part of one's assessment of them.
So what kind of issues can be discussed? I suggest:
(1) From other records and inscriptions, is the general cultural/social/political background as portrayed in the gospels, or do they make howlers?
This has a positive and negative aspect. A general reflection of otherwise known first century culture will encourage belief that the writers at least knew the contemporary scene. On the other hand specific mistakes (eg an assumption of the use of nails in crucifixion if they weren't, or that Quirinius was governor when we know he wasn't) could indicate either a careless use of sources or (if such mistakes are often made a lack of any historical worth. But we have been looking at just such issues, so in my view have been considering evidence.
(2) Are what contemporary references we do find in accord with the mainstream Christian views of the life and death of Christ and growth of the church?
Again we have looked at this, and I have shown that there are no contemporary sources Steven can name which would be expected to speak of Jesus and don't. Philo is perhaps the only possible exception, though his concerns were mainly on other issues.
(3) Do the Gospels fit together without contradiction?
My contention is that they essentially do, and, indeed, that in the crucial accounts of the resurrection, there are elements in one which 'make sense' only in the light of details in another. Our books have argued this at length.
Contemporary Sources: Josephus
What is Steven's fundamental opinion about Josephus? Is it that Josephus never mentioned Jesus at all in his original work? But if so why not? Was it because Josephus never came across Christians or didn't know their beliefs? In 93AD this seems absurd. My belief is that there was an original passage in Antiquities 18, but that it was subtly amended by Christians. My point about Origen was not to defend his interpretation of Josephus, but that he does 'cite' (I didn't say 'quote') the passage in Antiquities 20 and uses of James the phrase 'a brother of Jesus (called the Christ)' just like Josephus. Neither did I claim that the Agapius text of Josephus was an 'independent non-Christian witness'. I merely claim that it adds to the a priori suspicion that the Christian editors of the Greek version of Josephus added various phrases to it which are not there in the Arabic because it has an earlier source. Had the Arabic version not had some independent source from the Greek versions then its writer (as a Christian) would surely have left the additions in. As for its assertion that Jesus was killed, since second century Roman and Jewish (Talmudic) sources all say the same thing, this would not be very remarkable.
Contemporary Sources: Philo
Steven here again is unrealistic about the worldwide newsworthiness of some of the Gospel events. He mentions the slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem but Bethlehem was after all a small place (with just one Inn), and on the scale of acts of the increasingly ruthless and bloodthirsty Herod (who killed most of his own family) hardly rates mention. A period of overcast darkness during Jesus' death, and earth tremors, would again be explained away by locals as coincidence, and the visionary experiences mentioned in Matthew 27.53 probably written off as superstition. Philo's works are, as already said, mostly philosophical, and he was evidently not a Christian. But, again, is Steven claiming that Philo never mentions it because there were no Jewish Christians and Acts is fiction? This again would seem a bizarre suggestion whether the Gospels are reliable or not.
Modern Christian Writers
I am not especially impressed with the production of a rag-bag of quotes from different religious writers about the unreliability of the Gospels. We would need to look closely at the assumptions under which they were reaching their conclusions. The Gospels are, of course, products of redactions, and redaction criticism may be possible, but it seems to me that in practice often those who practice it make entirely unfounded assumptions. Our debate is not about whether Steven Carr can find any religious folk who share his criticisms, but whether any of these criticisms do in fact have logical and empirical foundation. I ought, however, to point out that F.F.Bruce (a mainstream Christian and biblical scholar) made his point about Ovid not to suggest that Acts copied it (which would be even less likely than Luke copying Euripides) but that the story of people thinking that they have met Zeus and Hermes is contextually credible. It does, moreover, seem to me that Bruce is right to suggest that those who deny the accuracy of Acts on the grounds that Zeus and Hermes were not worshipped in that area are refuted by an inscription which shows they were. Where's the flaw in that?
I regard as wildly implausible the suggestion that gospel stories were just rewritten versions of Old Testament or even pagan stories. I have shown how, in each instance Steven cites, the OT and NT events have very basic divergences and only very superficial similarities. He challenges me to produce a modern book with the phrase 'he gave him back to his mother' and he will give £1000 to Oxfam. Perhaps he was not quite certain or he would have pledged the money to a charity with which he had less sympathy eg Christian Students in Science. I do not have time to look but if any reader finds it, do let me know and Oxfam will be grateful. Actually, of course, it would not surprise me at all if the Gospel writer had the Septuagint phrase in mind when he wrote the words. I know many Christians today who might describe their own experiences using some words of the Bible in which they are steeped it does not mean that they have made up the experiences as garble rehashes from biblical ones. The NT use of one phrase even with the word 'behold' at the end (a word used some 50 times in Luke and 70 times in 1 Kings) is no basis to suggest the whole story is nothing more than a garbled rehash. West Side story is the same basic plot as Romeo and Juliet the similarity is not based on one phrase and the presence of two lovers. What is puzzling is that when he demands 'evidence' from me it is supposed to be in impossible terms of independent provenly objective eyewitnesses, and when he gives his own 'evidence' that the NT writers were liars who pretended that rehashed ancient stories were real events, he relies on such fantasy.
Points claimed by Steven as contradictions fall into several categories.
The first are those which involve reading into the text things which no sensible person would. His obstinate clinging to the idea that the writers intend us to believe the disciples heard Jesus pray just a few words whilst they were asleep falls into this category.
The second are those which appear only if we fail to recognise the literary conventions involved. I do not ' concede ' that the Gospel writers did not intend to write chronologically, I assert it. John is up front about writing with a theological intention which means he selects and rearranges but does not fabricate.
The third are the very few genuine issues. The chronology of the last supper and the Passover is one of these. My own long held view is that the words of the Synoptics do not imply that it was the Passover meal itself only that they 'went to prepare the Passover' in the sense that we might speak of 'preparing for Christmas' meaning the whole feast including Christmas eve and boxing day. The 'day of the unleavened bread' simply means the feast, and pious Jews searched for and ceremonially removed leaven the day before the actual Passover. The absence in the Synoptics of any reference at all to the lamb seems to me to support this view strongly. The reference in the Jewish Talmud is also supportive. The Mark and Luke reference to the 'first day of unleavened bread when they killed the Passover' is, again, a general reference to the feast as we might say 'the first day of Christmas when we all give presents'. I am aware that other Christians see this differently, and there may be some other explanation, but all accounts agree that Jesus had a special meal with them the night he was betrayed, and none mention a lamb. I can think of numerous points of history on which experts disagree on these kinds of issue but without suggesting that the whole events concerned are fabrications.
In this third category may also be the Quirinius issue which is a genuine question. Steven has the luxury of simply referring to a great diatribe from Richard Carrier on the 'Feedback page', a man who exhibits extraordinary prejudice by admitting being unable or unwilling even to try to follow my arguments. Carrier reiterates the old arguments made by the 19thC sceptical theologian David Strauss about client kings etc. It would be unreasonable to expect me within my email limits to answer another full paper, and I refer the reader to the material in the Nolland 1989 two volume commentary on Luke. John Nolland is a biblical studies lecturer with a B.Sc., B.D., Th I, Dip Th and Cambridge PhD. I don't know who Carrier is, but will also forward his Greek arguments to N T Wright (whose words I was quoting and who has taught NT at Oxford and Cambridge) and see if he would like to post a counter paper. The whole issue, of course, does not affect general questions about Luke's accurate knowledge of the period between the crucifixion and destruction of the Temple, it is just an issue of lack of any error in the NT.
Since I teach the history of science I was interested to read Steven's suggestion that Origen was 'not very sophisticated' because he thought the world a few thousand years old rather than eternal. Origen was simply challenging Celsus to produce evidence for an eternal cycle of conflagration, there was no particular evidence either way in the third century for an eternal or fairly recent earth. As for believing that a donkey spoke, since I have no particular problem in believing in the context that Balaam experienced God speaking to him through the beast, probably I am 'gullible'. But the point to which we keep coming back is that credibility depends on overall coherence and world view. I do not believe that women can be sawn in half (although I have seen it done) because it does not make sense. I do believe that Jesus walked upon the water not because I saw it (it could be a trick anyway even if I did) but because it comes as part of a package deal with a personal creator God, a plan which started with Abraham, and culminated in a Messiah who came as prophesied to communicate uniquely God's character to us. How could I produce 'evidence' that what Josephus's friends saw was not 'really' a lamb? We come back again and again to this naive view of 'evidence' as though it can be free-standing and absolute. I don't believe it was really a lamb not because I have specific 'evidence' (a faded photo taken by an onlooker or a piece of DNA?) but because it would make no more overall sense to me to imagine it was 'really' a lamb than that the woman was 'really' sawn in half. All our assessment of how reality relates to what is 'seen' depends on an underlying world view. But Steven's demands for 'evidence' have become more and more extreme. He now demands that we show of the NT writers: 'who the sources were, how reliable and how fairly reported' . But how could we show this even in principle? To show that such sources were 'reliable and fairly reported' we would presumably need to produce other independent sources also reliable and fairly reported who corroborated what they said. But how would we know these in turn were 'independent' etc? If they reported seeing miracles they would either become Christians (and so no longer be independent) or put it down to tricks or sorcery (the claim in the Talmud or from Celsus). What Steven is asking for is something which is not only unavailable but inconceivable. It arises from a nai;ve view of what constitutes 'evidence'. Is there clear objective 'evidence' that Dianne Modhal or Linford Christie took drugs? Is there such 'evidence' that O J Simpson killed his wife? Is there evidence that my friend, in whom cancerous cells simply disappeared, was 'miraculously healed'? It all depends on your viewpoint. I do not know the context of the quotation Steven gives from William Craig, but in any case it is me not Craig with whom he is debating. Our experience of the Holy Spirit is a part of our Christian experience, but the apostle Paul does not appeal to this against historical evidence or the evidence of divine design and power in nature. He appeals, as I have already said, to experience, nature and history, as we did in our Christianity, Evidence and Truth (on www.csis.org.uk).
Islam and Mormonism
Steven seems to assume that my rejection of Islam and of Mormonism is based on a few problem verses in their Scriptures, and he continually returns to this. I have read the Qur'an in several translations and also the book of Mormon. I accept, of course, that both groups have got some things right (eg there is a personal God). I reject both, however, where they diverge from Christianity, not because of small textual discrepancies but because they make less overall sense.
Mohammed lived in the seventh century and wrote about (amongst other things) the events of the life of Jesus. Luke claimed to have used first century sources in a process of historical analysis. Mohammed made no such claim, but claimed the Qur'an was directly recited to him by the angel Gabriel. On the basis of this he claimed that although Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah the NT misrepresented what Jesus had actually said, and Jesus did not really die and so could not be resurrected. Now are these claims to a vision to be paralleled (as Steven suggests) to the claim of Mary to have seen an angel? Again, the claims cannot be seen in isolation from overall coherence. The OT particularly Isaiah, portrays a coming 'Messiah' figure. The discovery of the Isaiah scroll in Qumran means that we now know that the version of Isaiah we now have corresponds both with the Septuagint in common use in Jesus day and to the original Hebrew in use before and during his lifetime. Now I believe Mohammed is right when he says that God gave the Torah to the Jews and spoke through the OT prophets. The vision claimed by Mary was in line with that prophecy, and the Jesus in the Gospels fulfils the prophecies in Isaiah making overall sense of a plan of God. What about the vision claimed by Mohammed himself? He accepts that God spoke through the Jewish prophets (and we know that the Isaiah we now have is the authentic one extant in the time of Jesus) he accepts that Jesus was the Messiah who came to fulfil the prophecies, and yet he denies that Jesus did actually die and so fulfil them. In denying that Jesus died he also contradicts the universal testimony of all Christian, Jewish and Roman sources in earliest years after the event. He contradicts the message of death and resurrection at the very heart of all Christian belief from the very beginning, reflected in all early teachings. I find, moreover, nothing in the Qur'an which improves on the teachings of the NT. So does it make sense to accept it? I don't believe so but this is not based on some isolated Qur'anic verse with a discrepancy.
The book of Mormon, again unlike Luke, does not claim to be a compilation made by normal historical methods using sources. It claims to be a miraculously given translation of gold plates (since lost) written in 'Reformed Egyptian', about pre-Christian civilisations in the Americas. An alternative hypothesis would be eg that Joseph Smith adapted it from a contemporary manuscript novel. Now as we have seen there would be nothing exceptional in a Gospel writer using a phrase from the Septuagint (with which he would be very familiar) as part of a description of contemporary events. But it would seem strange to find a quotation from Shakespeare in the book of Mormon. Shakespeare could not have read the Reformed Egyptian, nor the ancient writer Shakespeare. Since the translation was miraculous (Smith could not read Reformed Egyptian if there ever was such a language) it could only mean that the Holy Spirit decided to use Shakespeare. The link is in the words 'no traveller returns' whereas Job contains the idea of not returning but does not link it to any idea of a 'traveller'. So is this the basis on which I reject Mormonism? Not really. It could be coincidence. In my view there are far more basic issues. The book itself is full of one dimensional characters cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, in the worst B-movie tradition. It is quite unlike the OT in which we see the 'warts and all' characters of Abraham, David and the rest. Then there is prophecy. Some of the prophecies in Isaiah are remarkable and we now have an actual copy of it which predates Christ. But the supposed 'prophecies' claimed in the book of Mormon are so detailed that they all but give the phone number of John the Baptist in Jerusalem. They are nothing like those in the OT to which they are supposedly contemporary. They use the word 'Christ' as though it is a name not a title. Nor do the distinctively Mormon doctrines make any sense. The change of mind on polygamy and on the status of black people seems very odd. This is not progressive revelation both showed an initial backwards movement from the NT and Christian views on monogamy and equality. I have seen around an impressive Mormon Temple (accompanied by the UK PR man) but what is it supposed to be 'restoring'? We know that nothing like it existed in the first century so where did eg Peter go to get 'sealed' to his wife? Where did the Corinthians go to get baptised for the dead? He couldn't tell me. These are not little points of discrepancy, but major incoherences.
It may be added that the Qur'an contains very little historical detail (apart from that found in the Bible) which could even be subject to any kind of archaeological or other check. The Book of Mormon describes supposed times and civilisations for which I know of no other sources whatsoever. I reject Islam and Mormonism because their whole basic thrust is inconsistent with the true Judaeo-Jesus teaching they claim to accept not because of some footling supposed discrepancies in odd verses which might or might not be removed by a hypothetico-deductive approach.
I wrote previously that I would return to the issue of the psychology of characters in the gospels. This is on two levels. First, the character of Pilate in Josephus comes across as a blusterer, not as bright as (say) Caiaphas, perhaps promoted beyond his ability as a result of marriage, and inconsistent in his firmness. This seems to me in good accord with the Pilate we meet in the Gospels. Likewise the Annas and Caiaphas, the Herods, etc, are all basically similar. Then the characters of the disciples seem realistic. The blustering rather blundering Peter, the more reticent though son of thunder John, etc. Their fear in the face of the trial and death of Jesus, and the change in them at Pentecost, all see to me to be realistic. Of course I cannot give 'evidence' that Peter denied Jesus three times produced by an 'independent witness' or a video camera, but that is not my concern.
Steven seldom seems to address my detailed points. Though I have pointed out that first century sources are few, and challenged him to say in which work or by whom these events would be recorded, he still says things like 'history if silent'. Who is 'history'? I have already noted that the slaughter in such times of a few babies, or an overcast darkness in Jerusalem would hardly rate world-wide note. However, let us look over again his specific counter points.
On the 'hours' in relation to the time of the crucifixion, he refers to my 'chosen examples' (actually I listed all the NT references), and says they 'do not have three hour segments' (a statement I just do not understand since most of them do and those that don't have especial reasons for this). He refers us for ultimate authority to the New Bible Dictionary, to an entry (ironically by the F.F.Bruce he earlier denigrated) which if read in full in no way contradicts my comments. Bruce also notes the most common reference to the third, sixth and ninth hours, whilst Steven ignores both this and the word 'about' which I noted.
I cannot keep coming back to the incessant demand for 'evidence' which is defined so as to be impossible if not inconceivable. I cannot keep explaining that historical accounts are never exhaustive descriptions and that they (like virtually all human accounts except possibly the Rationalist Association minutes of which I have never had sight) often speak in hyperbole, casually, or without filling in all details. On some issues we do indeed have details from elsewhere. Why, for example, does Mary Magdalene in John 20:2 say 'We do not know where they have laid him' and in John 20:13 'I do not know where they have laid him'? From the Synoptics we find out that in first instance she has just left the other women, and in the second we know she has lost touch with them and so speaks only for herself. John does not mention the other women because he dramatically focuses on Mary but he gives the plural because that is actually what she said. Likewise, Mark 16:4 tells us that the stone was large and so they could see it from a distance away, but John 20:1-2 tells us that it was when she saw it rolled back that Mary came running back. She did not, therefore, see the angels with the other women who went on into the tomb. On other issues, though, we may lack explanatory details from other sources and have to use our intelligence. Thus eg Steven claims that the 'they' in John 18:6 must refer back to exactly the same 'they' as John 18:3. But what about the 'they' of 18:5 who replied 'Jesus of Nazareth'? Did every single one of them, Jews, Romans, Officers etc all speak in unison? Surely not even Steven would read it like this? So why the only partial superliteralism?
Now on Elisha and Jesus again. Did the parent 'precede' Elisha/Jesus to the house? Perhaps I have here misunderstood what Steven meant I thought he meant 'went on ahead', which is not in my Bible. If he simply meant that the owner of the house led the guest into it, then probably this happened in both cases practically any one of us if we go into someone's house go in after them in that sense. One doesn't really need any inference from words about only three following Jesus to guess that Jairus or his wife entered first. But if this is all Steven means then it is a very unremarkable 'similarity'. What he ignores is the great long list of fundamental differences I gave between the OT and NT stories.
On the donkey and colt issue, one presumes that Matthew (in whose text the actual word 'him' is implied rather than written) would not imagine that Jesus could sit simultaneously on a donkey and a colt, nor that such a feat would somehow correspond more exactly to the words of Zechariah 9:9. So what exactly is Steven claiming here? Let us look at his big inferential jump:
Now plainly the gospel writers did believe that Jesus was in some sense a 'fulfilment' of the Old Testament. So do I. That, after all, is central to the whole idea that there is a personal God who chose Abraham so that 'through his offspring all nations of the earth should be blessed'. This means that as they selected which particular accounts to include, or decided what particular turn of phrase to use, they sometimes did so to reflect this. I have no problem in (say) Matthew altering the words of Mark (or Q) to retain the general sense but point the reader more clearly to an OT idea. But this is very different from Steven's last sentence implying that they made up or fabricated incidents in Jesus life which were nothing but rehashes of OT stories. I accept eg that all newspapers may couch any report in language which reflects a particular slant or concern, or may include or exclude particular details because they have particular agendas. But if they print stories which are simply made up or are rehashed from last year with changed names, then surely this is a different matter? I just cannot see how anyone can fail to see a fundamental difference between these two things.
What about the birth narratives? Mary, obviously, realised that there was something special about her son. Whilst my geneticist friends may be right in saying that a virgin birth is just about medically possible, it occurs very rarely if ever, and Mary believed it humanly impossible. However, I know sane sober people today who believe that they have experienced miracles of healing no less 'impossible' medically. The experiences of the shepherds and the visit of some magi - not three kings of course but possibly more like ancient new age travellers left her pondering what it all meant. The incident at Jesus bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem marked him out as precocious though I could think of many historical figures who were no less so. When Jesus finally started his actual ministry, we find that his mother had her own ideas of what his Messiahship might mean which were not always in line with his (Mk 3.31 Mt 12.46, Lk 2:48, 8:19, Jn 2:3). All the Synoptics here repeat Jesus' insistence that his relatives (miraculous birth stories or not) have no special claim on him as Messiah, and it is Luke (11:27-28) in which he specifically denies any special status to his mum because she bore and nursed him. He implies that she is special, of course, but only because she (like others) heard the call of God and obeyed it. Had Luke 11.27-28 appeared just in Mark then presumably Steven would have suggested that Luke and Matthew censored it out. So did they omit Mark 3:21 because they had some kind of problem with it? It actually says 'some of his own people' or literally 'those from his side' thought he was 'out of himself' or perhaps we might say 'got carried away'. We don't know who these people were - presumably not his 'mother and brothers' who are specified explicitly ten verses later on a different occasion. But this picture of a concern amongst friends and family is common to all the Synoptics, and we must not think that they had our present hindsight understanding of what being the Messiah meant. Even Jesus' close friend Peter protested vehemently against any suggestion that he should fulfil his messianic calling to a sacrificial death. Why were they so slow to understand? Again and again in my study of the history of science I note concepts like eg inertia which with hindsight seem so obvious, but which at the time were not. One of the most common mistakes in popular books is to assume that earlier scientists were prejudiced or stupid for not accepting particular ideas, when in fact those ideas (eg the motion of the earth) seemed bizarre in the light of concepts then available to them. Jesus' friends, family, and disciples, should not be blamed for not understanding what his Messiahship really meant until after his death.
Did Mark and Paul know of the birth stories? I don't know. I have on my shelves eight books on Galileo. Some of them include his early life, some don't, and they all choose to include different points about his life. Some mainly focus on the later events of the 'trial'. Can I conclude that those who say little about his earlier life didn't know about it? Not really. Actually it would not worry me much anyway if either Mark or Paul hadn't heard of the virgin birth. Though I believe in the virgin birth, I am sure that many in the first century heard the message of the Gospel and became Christians without ever hearing of it. The creatorship of God and the death and resurrection of Christ are essential to the very meaning of 'Christian'. Knowing of the magi, shepherds and virgin birth is not. I have to say, however, that since Luke probably picked up the information on a visit to Jerusalem with Paul, it seems pretty far fetched to suggest that Paul didn't know about it. What then of Paul's references cited by Steven? What Matthew implies is just that Joseph believed (at that point) that Mary had committed adultery, and so could be legally divorced. Since, in fact, she had not committed adultery, there was actually nothing illicit about the birth of Jesus. Paul's words 'born under the law' do not contradict this, and his real meaning anyway is just that Jesus was born as a Jew and so 'under the law'. Since, in Judaism, being a Jew is a result of having a Jewish mother, this is true. Steven's suggestion that the birth of Jesus would have been a better example to use later in the chapter than the birth of Isaac is lost on me. Paul is specifically speaking to 'you who desire to be under the law' (Gal 4:21). The allegorical use of the two sons of Abraham to illustrate his point about the fundamental meaning of the Old Covenant is far more apposite than a possible reference to the virgin birth.
In the very early church different stories about Jesus would be circulating in different areas and circles. The essentials of any Christian faith are a belief in a personal creator-God, the coming of Jesus as a planned-for Messiah, his death and resurrection, and the need for a personal response. But someone could perfectly well become a Christian by (say) reading the gospel of Mark without hearing of the virgin birth. Stanton seems to have shown that actually the gospels were gathered together earlier than previously thought, sometime in the second century, but not in the first. So why is any of this a problem?
This debate is supposed to be about whether the gospels contain reliable accounts of history. I believe that they can be shown to be in general accord with the times, and to have been written using sources familiar with the general background and terrain. It is not possible to produce 'evidence' in some absolute provably-impartial, totally-objective sense and frankly on issues like these which concern a basic world-view I cannot even conceive what such 'evidence' could look like. I have shown that suggestions that NT stories are just rehashed garble OT stories are fantasy, and most of the suggested gospel inconsistencies (with history or each other) are explicable by making quite reasonable assumptions about language use and human nature. There remain a few genuine issues (eg Passover date) about which I think I know the answer but can be less sure but I know similar puzzles in other areas of history and it does not make me conclude it is all myth. What 'questions' remain which I have not answered doubtless Steven will let me know.
Steven Carr's Opening Statement
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Steven Carr's First Response
Dr. Marston's First Response
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